A man who said he was left feeling suicidal due to what he claims to be an “endemic” bullying culture at Sellafield has spoken out about his experience.

Brian, not his real name, claimed he suffered bullying by senior management when he was employed by Sellafield Ltd.

He said: “It all happened because I stuck my head above the parapet and the managers’ response to that was to demote me.”

Sellafield launched a campaign to tackle bullying after a survey revealed that one in four workers said that bullying and harassment were tolerated at the site.

An equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) survey was undertaken across the NDA group in late 2017. The organisations say this was part of an estate-wide agenda to ensure employees feel respected and able to perform at their best while they are at work.

A company spokesman said: “At Sellafield, the survey had a response rate of 51 per cent and we shared the results with all employees in February 2018. In doing so we recognised that bullying and harassment was an area where we needed to do better. The headline figure was that nearly one in four said that bullying and harassment is tolerated.

“Following the survey, we developed a programme to address the issues raised. The first focus was mental health and wellbeing. The second was on bullying and harassment.”

Brian, who now no longer works at the plant, said he highlighted bullying behaviour with senior managers and the firm’s HR department, but said his concerns were ignored.

Sellafield Ltd and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) admitted that over a quarter of disciplinary cases at the nuclear plant in 2018/19 were into bullying and harassment, but they denied ignoring complaints.

A spokesman for the firm, which employs around 10,000 people, said: “Twelve cases of bullying and harassment were reported and formally investigated in 2018/19. This represented 27 per cent of disciplinary cases overall.

“We have been actively raising the profile of bullying and harassment, asking people to step forward and report. We therefore anticipated this rise and are pleased that individuals feel more empowered to report problems.”

He added: “All reports of bullying and harassing behaviour are taken seriously, and dealt with appropriately and sensitively. Additionally, we have a cohort of ACAS-trained internal investigators, and have access to external independent investigators. Where evidence of misconduct is found, cases progress to formal disciplinary hearings which could result in a range of sanctions, including dismissal.”

When asked if it was true that employees who spoke out were demoted or moved to a different department rather than the manager being dealt with, Sellafield and the NDA said this was untrue.

The spokesman said: “Any decisions on moving someone from their role are taken extremely carefully. When a complaint is raised, we must consider the impact of any such decision and protect all parties involved. There is no assumption of blame – all parties have the right to have a fair, open and transparent investigation.”

The spokesman added that the company always sought to work with whistleblowers and that the law protected people who made such disclosures.

But Brian claimed that bullying was deep-rooted at the plant. “It was work that made me ill and that put me in a position to never be able to work again. I was aware of bullying from day one, it’s deep-rooted. This mentality in Sellafield is endemic.

“It’s had a massive effect on my family life, my mental health and general wellbeing. Managers would make it difficult for me to attend medical appointments, they were never proactive in asking me how I was,” said Brian.

A number of people spoke about their experience working for Sellafield and what they claim to be “rife culture of bullying”.

Extensive details of the bullying claims and their circumstances were disclosed. However sources said they feared for their future employment and those details are kept out of the public domain to protect the sources’ anonymity.

Brian said: “My health was compromised and there was no independent system in place for me to speak out or get the support I needed. The whole situation made me feel suicidal.”

A family member of a former employee, who also opened up about their experience working at Sellafield, told of a similar pattern: “My partner had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward following a mental breakdown and became critically ill. The bullying was definitely a catalyst for what happened.

“Bullying is just part of the culture. When it was reported there was an internal investigation and many colleagues provided statements to back up the claims, but my partner’s case was thrown out and the manager still works in the same position, despite this having happened several years ago.”

But Sellafield and NDA said they were committed to supporting their employees and providing support, awareness and help.

The spokesman said: “Sellafield Ltd is a large, complex organisation, with a range of cultures, history and experiences. The organisation is going through a period of unprecedented transformation, and we fully appreciate this could potentially affect some employees (as change always does). That is why we are committed to providing enhanced and significant support to our people, who are our most important asset.”

The organisations said absence rates were of around 10 days per person per year, with just over a third of that period attributed to poor mental health and related conditions.

“Stress, anxiety and related mental health issues are a growing cause of ill health absence in every organisation. Sellafield Ltd is no different.

“Latest UK figures suggest one in four of the general population and one in six of the working population will suffer from poor mental health.

“The latest recent UK CIPD (Chartered Institute or Personnel and Development) survey stated that 59 per cent of organisations recognised mental ill health as the top cause of absences from work.”

Sellafield and the NDA said they had invested significantly in a range of activities to support people reporting mental health problems.

These include training all of the company’s occupational health staff in mental health first aid; training and deploying over 150 employees as mental health champions and over 20 employees as mental health buddies; developing a wellbeing app for company mobile phones; internal support groups and networks (autism, LGBT, dyslexia, speech and language, cancer support, etc); 24/7 external employee assistance programme that offers counselling and confidential and independent support to employees and their families; sponsoring and delivering a This Is Me event in Cumbria to break down stigma by promoting employees’ own stories about mental health.

Demands for public hearing

Calls have been made for a public inquiry into bullying at Sellafield.

Current and former employees who spoke about their experience of working at the nuclear plant are calling for the firm to be held to account and the alleged bullying culture to be fully investigated.

Luke (not his real name), a current employee at the plant who claims he is being bullied by senior managers, said: “Sellafield is the biggest political pawn in the UK. If these problems were happening in a prison, there would be a public inquiry into it and that’s what needs to happen.”

Some of the sources alleged that bullying at the nuclear plant would extend to forcing staff to falsify health and safety reports following incidents so the blame would not fall on those in charge.

But Sellafield and the NDA rejected this claim.

A spokesman said: “If anyone (manager or employee) engaged in this activity, and we were aware of it, they would be subjected to formal internal disciplinary action.”

He said safety was not put at risk by bullying.

“Sufficient independent oversight ensures safety is not put at risk from interference, personal behaviours or drives to meet financial targets.

“Our chief nuclear officer has an independent oversight team, who audit and assure all Sellafield Ltd activities associated with safety. The team has a direct link into the CEO.

“Our independent regulators also assess safety performance, behaviours and culture across Sellafield.”

He added that all incidents were investigated by a peer group including members of the company’s independent oversight teams and that learning from incidents was shared across Sellafield Ltd and the wider nuclear industry, collated by their ‘Performance Improvement’ team.

Workington MP Sue Hayman said a number of her constituents who worked at Sellafield contacted her about bullying.

The Labour MP said: “I am concerned that a number of constituents have contacted me about bullying in the workplace at Sellafield and I will be doing my best to support them whilst I look into their concerns.”

But Trudy Harrison, Tory MP for Copeland, declined to comment on the bullying allegations and refused to reveal what her stance was on a public inquiry.

Luke said: “There’s a toxic culture. I’ve worked there for many years but it’s only in the last three or four years that the situation got really bad, it’s out of control.

“I wait until my wife and kids are in bed and I go downstairs and cry. I even had a panic attack once before going to work. My wife knows what’s going on but I don’t feel like I can talk to her about it all the time as it is affecting my personal life and my family. I don’t want her to worry too much.

“The situation is horrendous and I’m considering leaving. I want to do something about the situation, but I’ve seen so many people trying to raise concerns and nothing happens to the managers. Here we deal with tons of plutonium, not biscuits. It’s a dangerous atmosphere.”

Sellafield and NDA: 'We take bullying seriously'

Concerns have been raised over the effectiveness of Sellafield’s procedures to report bullying.

Sellafield Ltd launched a campaign to tackle bullying after a survey revealed that one in four workers said that bullying and harassment were tolerated at the site. However current and former employees have alleged that the system for anonymously reporting misconduct is flawed.

Sellafield and the NDA said that Safecall, the system for reporting such issues was independently operated and confidentiality is maintained wherever possible. The spokesman said: “

These reports can be progressed through various internal or external investigation routes depending upon the nature of the issue raised. Outcomes are reported to the board.”

Malcolm Carruthers, regional officer at the Unite union, said: “I believe the company recognises that unfortunately there is a level of bullying and harassment that does go on and tries to reassure the workforce that it is unacceptable, but continued efforts need to be made to eradicate this behaviour. Unite would encourage all of our members to report cases of bullying whether it is to themselves or others.”

The spokesman for Sellafield Ltd and the NDA added: “All reports of bullying and harassing behaviour are taken seriously, and we are committed to investigating them confidentially and sensitively.”